Just when we need it most, we’ve lost faith in each other.

According to a recent Gallup poll, our collective trust in the media, our trust in the American people, and our trust in politicians has fallen to an all-time low.

And this comes at a time when we need to convert to a zero carbon economy, when we need to overhaul our crumbling infrastructure and when we need to begin leveling out an economic playing field which is becoming increasingly tilted toward the rich. All of which will take an unprecedented level of government mobilization, community engagement and, most of all — trust.

While it might seem like just another casualty of the 2016 presidential campaign, polls show that our trust in each other and in our public institutions has actually been declining for most of the 21st century. The public loses faith in government, which makes government increasingly weary of the public, which adds to the public distrust of government— and the wheel keeps turning.

Access to the Lihue-Koloa Forest Reserve is currently through a submerged roadbed that forces you to drive through a few inches of water at the end of Kuamoo Road

The state government is building a bridge over Keahua Stream because access to the Lihue-Koloa Forest Reserve is through a submerged roadbed. But the lack of public notice has residents upset.

Luke Evslin

We can see this playing out in two cases on Kauai. The public perpetuating distrust followed by the government perpetuating distrust.

In 2014 I went to a Kauai Department of Water meeting on a proposed horizontal well on Waialeale.

Before the projector could even warm up, a group of activists began shouting that Waialeale is sacred and no water should be drawn from it. Within minutes, the middle school cafeteria devolved into a roaring echo chamber of protestors. And the meeting was adjourned before it really began.

The unseen presentation that night (of which I requested a copy afterwards) demonstrated how the new well would have turned the east side water system from one of the largest users of electricity on the island to one of the largest producers.

The protestors didn’t trust that the Department of Water would be good stewards of the mountain. Maybe they were right, or maybe we missed a tremendous opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint.

Because the well would’ve been tapped high on the side of the mountain, energy could be produced from turbines as the water flowed downhill. The combination of savings (by decommissioning wells) and production (through hydroelectricity) would eliminate about 4.3 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually. To put that into perspective, that’s the carbon equivalent of planting 50,000 trees every year. For a little island, that’s huge.

But none of that was ever presented. The protestors didn’t trust that the Department of Water would be good stewards of the mountain. Maybe they were right, or maybe we missed a tremendous opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint.

We will never know the answer because the public meeting was overthrown.

And now while the project gathers dust in some file cabinet, our east side water system continues to use 1.7 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That is the cost of mistrust.

It’s a two-way street.

“Bridge Construciton (sic) over Keahua Stream Gets Udnerway (sic),” read the headline at the Office of the Governor website on Sept. 9. Immediately after the posting, heavy equipment began grading the Keahua stream bank in preparation for a 115-foot, $2.5 million bridge.

Access to the Lihue-Koloa Forest Reserve is currently through a submerged roadbed that forces you to drive through a few inches of water at the end of Kuamoo Road. Theoretically, the state has good reasons to pursue a new bridge. A truck was washed down stream in 2012, the current submerged roadway needs to be repaired or replaced soon anyway, and there are large stands of invasive trees on the other side which can be harvested to raise money for the state’s Forest Stewardship Fund.

The only problem is the state hasn’t communicated any of it. While an environmental assessment was done in 2014, there have been no community meetings, no advance notice and no public input.

And, the community has valid reasons to oppose it. According to a Hawaii Tourism Authority study, the submerged roadway acts as a deterrent to rental cars. And the road beyond is 4×4-only, with another river crossing less than a mile farther along. So, the area is one of the few recreational areas on Kauai that is used predominately by locals.

So users of the area are just seeing an iconic river crossing being replaced by a steel truss bridge. And what used to act as a natural barrier to overcrowding will now be a gateway for vehicles that aren’t equipped for the rugged road conditions beyond.

Naturally, given the lack of information, many residents aren’t happy. On social media and in The Garden Island’s article about the new bridge, they’re complaining about the lack of notice and the waste of taxpayer money.

The state appears to have followed all of the required steps in the permitting process. The law didn’t require a public meeting— so none was held.

But protestors probably weren’t breaking any laws when they disrupted the meeting over the Waialeale well project either. Regardless of the law, both cases are equally undermining our democracy. The public overthrowing a community meeting is equivalent to the state never holding a meeting. And both spin the wheel of distrust.

Somehow, this cycle has to be broken.

I am not trying to pretend as if either case is simple or as if the answers are clear-cut. They’re not. But a column isn’t the proper place to solve problems. That’s what the democratic process is for.

Which means showing up at public meetings, listening to others and respectfully expressing our opinions. 

Sometimes we’ll agree with the consensus and sometimes we won’t. But that’s democracy. That’s what being part of a community is all about. The important part isn’t that we walk away happy with the outcome — it’s that we contribute.

Government has to fulfill its end of the bargain, too. Dialogue and public input shouldn’t just be items that get checked off during the approval process — effective policy needs to be shaped by the voice of the community.

Both sides need to do their part. Maybe then we can begin restoring the necessary trust.

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